It's difficult to adequately describe the division of your heart that happens when you live in, and learn to love, another culture and people group. You are never the same. You still love your home, but now your heart has grown to love another entire group of traditions, languages, sights, sounds and smells.
It's sort of like what happens when parents have multiple kids. They don't love their first child less when they have another. Somehow, they manage to love that second, third, etc. child just as much as the first, with the understanding that this new baby is a unique blessing from God, different from their first child, but just as loveable in his/her own ways.
So I'm always a little sheepish about telling folks in Costa Rica that I miss the U.S., or folks here that I miss Costa Rica. Am I devaluing their impact and influence on my life by acknowledging that there is somewhere else that is also special to me? But it's hard not to admit that wherever I am, there's a piece of my heart left behind. While happy to be with those that I've been missing (the glass-half-full part of me), I'm also sad to be away from others that I love (the glass-half-empty part).
More than missing a PLACE, though, I am really missing the people. When I am in Costa Rica, I miss many of you readers of this blog. Holidays with family, dinners or movies with friends, family time with friends who have kids who are friend of our kids. Homeschool community, recreational opportunities for the kids, birthday parties that pass us by as everyone's kids age (and grow) relentlessly. An apt word via phone or text just when I need it, because I am close enough for that friend to know what is happening with me just in that moment.
Things I have missed about Costa Rica while home on furlough are the same: I miss the people. Making Christmas tamales with Zeidy, talking with Alonzo about the hard question "where is God in this crappy world?" after giving a devotional that got him thinking about his beliefs, hugs from Yendry, Chio's sense of humor, Zumba class with my bible study girls, Karen's compassion, pedis with a fellow missionary, game nights with an intern, family movie night with Michelle in our midst. It's not about WHAT'S being done, it's about WHO it's being done with.
I even miss Andrew, a student that I had to kick of out of my English class near the end of a semester after he had pushed my buttons one too many times! After that, he respected me for drawing a boundary for his behavior and we became friends, oddly enough. I learned to challenge him (he mostly acted out because he was bored - he's super-smart) to help him funnel his energies. I encouraged him in his pursuit of learning to play the guitar, and he would ask me questions about God and theology (he's a wayward son of a pastor) after our devotionals.
People in the U.S. may think of Costa Rica as a beautiful place to vacation, nice weather, exotic animals, etc. But to me Costa Rica means the people that God has brought in my path to encourage, teach, serve, disciple and love (and also to learn and receive a ton from THEM!). Take them away and the allure for me is gone. People are our ministry and our calling in life, not a place.
Thinking about what I miss in both the U.S. and Costa Rica really brings home the fact that it's the quality of relationships that mark a life. Those of us with life-giving, purposeful relationships live in abundance. While those with a dearth of supportive and healthy relationships (or a wake of broken ones lying in their trail) live missing out on a key element of the blessing of God.
God created us to live in relationship, with Him and with others, no matter where He takes us: one country or the next, in a "secular" job or in ministry, at the kids' soccer practice or in retirement. May He always remind us that it's not about WHERE, but about WHO. Whether on the mission field (or on furlough), in church, in our job, on the street, at the library, or in the line at Panera's, God gives us people to minister to everywhere.
It's difficult to adequately describe the division of your heart that happens when you live in, and learn to love, another culture and people group. You are never the same. You still love your home, but now your heart has grown to love another entire group of traditions, languages, sights, sounds and smells.
· start thinking about where you give money and if it’s being used strategically to develop or give dignity to people,
· support and pray for our new endeavor,
· come and serve with us in a life-changing encounter with the poor, or
· spend some time with us hearing more about our experiences in La Carpio, at our silent auction on November 10, during a small gathering hosted by you, or one-on-one.
After our first few years on the mission field, I have come to view our ministry as identifying spiritual and emotional strongholds in people's lives, and trying to help them break out and move forward as healthier disciples of Christ.
Sometimes the strongholds are so dense that it seems like there will never be an end to someone's problems, that a new one simply comes along to replace the one that they just started to get a handle on. I've never seen such a concentration of people twisted up in such multi-layered dysfunction in such a relatively population. And yet, when I lift my head to take stock of all that God has done, it overwhelms me the changes that he has brought to bear in redeeming the lives of those that we love, and I can't help but thank Him and repent of my cynicism, because I know that He is surely in control here.
We have literally seen the power of God at work in breaking the bondage of:
- addictions (to sleeping pills and also to hard drugs)
- inability to ask forgiveness or forgive others for past hurts
- a spirit of provocation and violence
- living together unmarried
- distortions about the self
- child abuse
- co-dependency and lack of healthy boundaries
My discipleship group has started to study Beth Moore's Breaking Free, and it's really hit home with the girls. We've had to lessen the intensity a bit and take it slower than normal, but they're really engaging, doing their homework, and learning new things about God and what their lives should look like when they have Him with them. Despite opposition and lies from Satan about whether our group existed, and when it takes place, we've had 5 new girls join us in the last couple weeks. God will definitely NOT allow His plans to be thwarted when He wants to bring someone to freedom!
One of my greatest joys has been hearing family members comment on how the girls in the study have changed, and seeing sisters come to join us because the aroma of the gospel in the lives of those they love is so sweet to them that they want to check it out! One of the new girls is Meylin, Fabiola's sister. Fabiola has been in the group for some time. She can be kind of quiet and I don't always know what she's thinking or where her heart is. She's got the right answers, but you never know if someone's actually putting this stuff into practice, right? I know that her mother is very abusive, especially to Fabi and her sister, as they are the two oldest, and that Fabi has been struggling through forgiveness and not hating her mother for everything she does and says to them.
This week, Fabi told me that there had been an episode at home in which her mother did not like the rice that her sister had prepared for dinner. She demanded that Meylin sit and eat the entire pot of undercooked rice as punishment. Fabi and another of her sisters sat down in solidarity and compassion to help their sister eat the rice. Then Meylin confessed to Fabi that hates her mother and is plotting how to get revenge. Fabi counseled her, "I know that it's hard, but you need to forgive her." Meylin confessed that this was impossible for her. Fabi invited her to our bible study group, and she came, wanting to find out more about what it is that is helping Fabi to cope.
I am so encouraged by this story. First, that Fabi has compassion dwelling within her in a community where many siblings resent one another for being "competition" for limited resources and affection, and for frequently being the reason that the older sibling has to drop out of school (to care for the younger siblings). Second, that Fabi has matured enough in her own faith to counsel her sister about forgiving her mother and invite her to investigate the source of this healing with our group. And third, that Fabi's life has so obviously changed that her sister has noticed and is open to God in a way that she has not been before.
We've been talking a lot in our study about glorifying God and letting our lives be a reflection of His power and love. Fabi's doing it, and I'm so proud of the way she is giving God glory in a terrible situation. Now THAT is bringing beauty from ashes!
One of the most heartbreaking things about working with the poor is that the children have no childhoods. They are forced out of their innocence too early, forced to try to understand things that they shouldn't even yet know about, forced to make decisions that they are not ready for. Some examples are:
- kids trying to understand why dad left, has kids with other women, or would rather spend his money on drugs and alcohol for himself than food for his family
- kids laughing about shootings in the street outside their houses (a nervous defense mechanism), or another child being beaten in front of them
- kids being abused in every conceivable way and losing their trust early in the adults that should be there to protect them
- girls having to take care of their younger siblings at a very early age (like 7), and cook and clean the house for mom, either because she works or because she feels her children were born to wait on her, and then being told she's worthless when she's the hardest worker in the house
- teens that must walk the long way around to avoid the corner where the rival gang hangs out, to avoid a scuffle or violent attack
- teens that must decide at the age of 14 or 15 whether to have kids, continue school, or work, decisions that most 25-year-old Americans don't feel ready for!
I have very rarely seen parents try to shelter their kids in this context, maybe because they know it is futile. As a result, they are exposed to the hard and ugly truths too early in life. It jades them. They become hard and mistrustful, confused. Some become callous to their peers because "I've got it much worse than him/her, he/she should stop whining." This makes true friendships difficult to impossible, isolating them further from one of the only potential sources of support that they have.
Michelle, who lives with us currently, is a good example of the lack of a childhood.
She is the fourth daughter of an in-and-out-of-her-life drunk father and a violent mother. She watched her older sisters each take turns bearing the brunt of the abuse and responsibility for the house. One became a drug addict and prostitute who has had 6 or 7 children, several taken away by the government, never to be seen by the family again. Another became an alcoholic and prostitute, trying to kill her unborn baby in her womb by throwing herself from a rooftop (the baby lived and is still with her mother). Another was miraculously delivered and is a Christian in my bible study group who is married and takes very good care of her one child.
Then it was her turn. Michelle has been hit by her mother with cables to the point where she has faint scars still visible on her arms from defending herself by putting her arms in front of her body. She's had things thrown at her. She's been raped in her mother's house by strangers in the middle of the night while mom was home. She was frequently left alone with one of her younger brothers for days at a time by her father in a country shack without electricity, while he went on days-long drinking binges. I asked if she was afraid when he didn't come home. She responded that she was the first time, but then she got used to it. He would lock them in their bedroom when he came home drunk so that they wouldn't bother him.
But more painful to her is the verbal and emotional abuse that accompanied all this: the continual berating that she's worthless, that she doesn't need to go to school because she's too stupid to pass her tests, that mom is going to auction her off on Facebook to the highest bidder, that she'd better move out and find a man to take care of her (at 15 years old!) if she refuses to become a prostitute to contribute to the household like her sisters. Already one sister was taking her along on "appointments" to eat dinner or wait in another room, so that she could show her the ropes. Michelle came a hair's breadth away from her first "appointment" of her own, before she lost her nerve and started crying and asked to be taken home. Praise God that she chose not to pursue that life and to change directions!!
I share this so that you can BEGIN to imagine the pain inside of kids like Michelle. The way-too-early loss of the simple trust and feelings of safety that we feel all kids are entitled to simply doesn't exist for many kids in poverty. They have been abandoned emotionally and physically by parents too unhealthy to care for themselves, much less other people. When you look into their eyes, you see too much knowledge, too much sorrow, too much desperation, and too little hope, and it absolutely breaks your heart. You wonder what's happening to them at home -- some of them tell you and others don't want to talk about it. And you want to do nothing more than give them a few moments of love, of safety, of being cherished and praised and hugged and smiled at.
And you hope that to a few, it makes a small difference.
I just watched an amazing video at www.180movie.com. I recommend you check it out if you're remotely interested in American views on abortion. It was interesting viewing it from the place of living in another culture, as a couple of things stood out to me in stark contrast to the culture where I live:
- the discomfort on people's faces when they were forced to examine logically their views on abortion,
- the almost automatic reasons that people give to justify abortion (rape, can't care for the baby, etc.).
Yes, it seems as though we've been well-educated by our society to give the answers that make us most comfortable about taking the lives of unborn infants, without really examining what we're doing or saying. What was it that Socrates said: "the unexamined life is not worth living?" Interesting comment on which life is not worth living: the baby's, or the one who says it's OK to kill the baby for our own comfort without really examining that position?
This I'm sure comes as no shocker to many of you who are still living in our post-modern culture every day and being bombarded with these messages. But to someone who has lived for some time now in a Roman Catholic country that truly has yet to enter post-modernity, it was a shocking reminder of Americans' willingness to sacrifice anything on the altar of their comfort.
Costa Ricans as a whole have no doubt about the existence of God or moral absolutes of right and wrong. They don't walk around with illusions that they are "good people" who will obviously go to heaven. If anything, they walk around with a fear of God that if they mess up bad enough tomorrow (and they suspect that they will, because they're realistic) and then die, they'll wind up in hell. Many really haven't grasped the amazing nature of God's grace toward them, and have no assurance of salvation as a result. Their worldview can be summed up in the following equation: I sin + God's mad = trouble for me! We found this was a recurring them among the youth at camp, and realized that we need to hammer this theme in our teachings for this year.
Unrelenting guilt has its own unique set of challenges, but one benefit is that there really exists a FEAR of doing wrong. Many of them wouldn't sacrifice their conscience for their sake of comfort, which seems to have become very easy for many Americans. (I'm speaking in generalities here: obviously there are many lovely Americans who fight against worship of their own ease, and there are many Costa Ricans that do understand God's grace and live a life free from condemnation in Jesus).
Let me give you a real life example: One of the people that I cherish and admire most in La Carpio is my friend Ceci. The abortion video made me think of her because she's a classic case that would be used in the States to justify an abortion. She was abused and raped by her stepfather for years, starting at the age of 9, I believe. At age 15, she was pregnant by him. In the States, this situation equals abortion for many, without guilt or judgment. Ceci had her baby (Tania).
She has had so many challenges along the way: having to tell her mom what happened, "breaking up her family" with the departure of her stepfather, being a single mom, the shame of people knowing who the father of her child is, difficulties with attitudes of her family members toward Tania and mistreatement of Tania due to her origins. All of these things are super-uncomfortable and could have been avoided with an abortion. But she has bravely faced them all, and more. I am so touched to see how she cares for Tania and obviously loves her greatly. She has overcome the greatest temptation of all in the situation: to blame Tania for her own existence, or for Ceci's added difficulties in life. So who is more "reasonable": poverty-stricken Ceci who has come to grips with the fact that Tania didn't choose how she came into the world and shouldn't be punished for it, or the well-educated upper-class girl in the U.S. who is willing to kill someone who didn't cause her situation in order to hide it?
I don't know if she ever considered abortion in her heart of hearts (it's illegal here, but you can still find a hack to do it), but what strikes me is that Ceci doesn't worship her comfort. She lives an uncomfortable life in many other respects, so when faced with one more thing to overcome, she bears up under it without making a plan to escape the discomfort. And do you know what? She has become a strong person, come to know the Lord and to trust in Him through these experiences.
I understand if a girl or woman doesn't want to raise a child of rape, so please don't misunderstand me and hear me saying that everyone in this situation should do what Ceci did. But when I think about all the abortions from this cause and wonder why they don't just give the baby up for adoption instead, I can only come up with one answer: it's more uncomfortable than just "getting rid of it" and keeping your secret. And there we reach the root problem: the primary decision factor is what's comfortable for the girl, not what's right or wrong!
Maybe this is a reason America is weakening: its individuals are simply too worried about their comfort and taking the easy way. The super-development of our culture has led to the elimination of many misfortunes and inconveniences that regularly befall others in the world. When they avoid any insinuation of hard times whenever possible, how can they grow strong? What will refine them? How can they make the hard decisions to do what's right if it doesn't feel good and comfortable to them? Could it be that we fail to develop real character when we skip over so many of life's potential hardships?
Ceci and others in my life here inspire me to check my own desire to be comfortable all the time. I notice it creeping into my life in all sorts of unexpected ways, and I'm confronted with my own desire for ease. Does this mean I should go looking for trouble? No, each day has enough trouble of its own. But maybe when it comes, I should bravely fight through it instead of looking for the quickest way to eliminate it...
In the last month leading up to camp, we literally felt that we were receiving emotional and spiritual punches right and left. We now know why the enemy was so determined to put obstacles in our way: God showed Himself so faithful and did so much more than we even imagined or hoped for in the lives of the kids we took to camp this past week, that every minute of the frustrations and doubting was worth it!
Here’s a sample of the frustrations and conflicts leading up to camp:
· serious interpersonal conflict on the team that just about kept several leaders from going to camp at all,
· difficulties in getting camp invitations out to many of the boys and worries that we’d have a low number of boys able to go to camp,
· working straight through the holidays to resolve said problems, and
· a last minute car problem that left Andrea and our kids + Michelle (our fourth child right now) plus all their luggage stranded on the side of the road on the way in to La Carpio to board the camp buses. Instead of making it in time to help check in kids and organize the departure, they arrived barely in time to hop the buses after waiting for a tow and a ride to La Carpio!
After loading 135 kids and 24 leaders on the 3 buses, we got on frazzled and tired and wondering what the next disaster would be (one of the three buses almost didn’t even make it over the hill to get out of La Carpio, it was so ancient!), but prayed to God that He would complete His purposes in this camp and move us and all of these logistical problems out of the way.
And BOY DID HE! We arrived at the camp safe and sound, checked in smoothly, and saw the kids begin to let down their guard and open up during the first recreation time of roller-blading, which many of them had never done before. Next followed a time of rockin’ worship and excellent teaching in chapel on moving from the darkness into light (the theme of the camp this year—Ephesians 5:8) and what it means to be a light in the world. We were overwhelmed when the preacher made a call to come forward at the end of the evening and 35 KIDS AND 20 TEENAGERS CAME FORWARD TO ACCEPT CHRIST AS THEIR SAVIOR OR REDEDICATE THEIR LIVES TO CHRIST. We prayed over them, and many were weeping and repentant, clinging to their leaders for support and encouragement.
We were left without words to describe how the Spirit of God moved in those moments. Even now it’s difficult to summon adequate words. Let me say that these are not typical church-youth-group kids from suburbia. These are kids who live in utter and desolate darkness, in families where abuse of every type is the norm, who steal, cuss, lie, threaten, push and take what they want because they’ve learned that they’ll get nothing if they don’t. They’re kids who’ve been on drugs, having sex, in gangs, and living every other type of nightmare you can imagine. We had what we thought were “reasonably” low expectations for the kind of change that would come about in their lives during camp, until God blew us away and showed us that He can do ANYTHING in ANYONE at ANY TIME!
After that first night, kids began to let their burdens go and confide in their leaders as they did things they’d never done before and never thought they could, including obstacle courses, jungle challenges, high ropes courses, a rock-climbing wall, and lake fun that included the most intimidating water slide ever created and a “blob,” as well as several other challenges. They studied the Bible in small groups and learned how to move from darkness to light, what our identity is according to God, and how to stay on the path that God has for us when we go back into our daily lives. Stories like these came out:
· “I was raped by my cousin when I was 9.”
· “I need to move from the darkness into light, but I don’t know how to take the first steps.”
· “My dad held a knife to my mom’s throat when he was drunk and asked me if he should kill her.”
· "My parents say that I'm worthless."
· “I’ve stolen since I was 7 and been taking drugs, but I’m tired of who I am and want to change.”
· “I’ve known Christ and have all the right information, but have wandered in my heart and sought fulfillment elsewhere, but I want to come back.”
· “My mom wanted to sell me into the sex trade, but now I’ve seen a different way to live and want something more for my life.”
Imagine the misconceptions that these kids have about God living in this community! We had opportunities to identify fallacies about who God is and what He wants from us at every turn, and it was a healing balm for these kids that are so deeply wounded. About 15 more kids went forward on the third night to make a commitment to return to La Carpio as a light in that community and be set apart as an agent of change.
The last day, one of the female leaders indicated that Jessica, one of the gals in Andrea’s weekly bible study, indicated a desire to be baptized during a discussion about how we can identify with Christ. This was not a part of the agenda, but after the teens went through the jungle challenge (a completely nasty, wet, and muddy obstacle course) and were washing off in the lake, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do the baptism right then. It was a precious moment to symbolize to the kids that washing off the filth of our sin and being washed clean in Christ is what faith and the act of baptism is about. We had only a fraction of the teens with us in that moment (probably 25), and 4 others came forward after Jessica to make their declaration public and be baptized as well! Lesson learned: ALWAYS finish camp with a baptism celebration for those who have made decisions to follow Christ and are ready to take that step!!
The crazy thing about that special time was that Jessica nearly didn’t make it to camp because she didn’t have anyone to watch her 3 year-old daughter and her husband had to work. Until the night before, she was lamenting that she couldn’t go. When I showed up to get on the bus, there she was! When I asked how she had worked it out, she said her husband got time off work at the last minute and told her to go ahead and go. So we saw once again that God ordained every detail of the camp and what He wanted to accomplish there: if Jessica hadn’t taken the initiative to be baptized, the others wouldn’t have had the chance either and we wouldn’t have learned what a beautiful end to the camp it could be. Even the camp staff was surprised and excited at this new idea and may begin to mention it as an idea for the other groups that come through their camp all year.
To wrap up this post, we are praising God for His surpassing grace and ability to move any obstacle (including us!) out of His way when He has something to accomplish. He filled us with energy and positivity during the camp that we simply didn’t have going into it and we know didn’t come from inside of us! We saw specific growth in Jessica, Yendry, Michelle, Wilbert and Cristian, who participate in our weekly discipleship groups and for whom we have been praying and into whom we have been investing for months and months. We saw very high walls of rebellion, pride and isolation come down. Now we pray that God will give us the wisdom and resources to shepherd these kids all year long and help them to grow and not lose the momentum that they found during camp.
P.S. An encouraging exchange and a confirmation from the Lord that yes, these kids CAN hold on to what they learned at camp once they’re back at home:
Yendry texts Andrea today: "Oh, it’s so hard for me to stay quiet when they yell at me." (referring to her parents - this was not a thing she would have been trying before camp)
Andrea: "Pray to God to ask for patience, humility and an attitude of obedience and respect toward them. Remember that God has changed YOU, but not them yet, and He wants to reflect His light to them through you. God justifies you and sees every injustice and you don’t have to defend yourself, just trust in Him to do it. I am praying for you, too – you don’t know how proud I am of you seeing the steps that you are taking toward the light and your hard work! Keep at it and God will produce fruit in your life and in your relationship with them. And keep confiding in me and relying on your other Christian friends for support! You don’t know how much I have begged God on your behalf this year and how much joy it gives me to see you receiving so much blessing and comfort from Him."
Yendry: "Thanks. I know it’s hard but I am not alone. I know that God is with me and I will push forward whatever it costs, because I am not darkness but light. How beautiful are your words that give me encouragement to keep fighting. I never imagined knowing a person like you. May God bless you because you are of great blessing to me and you don’t know how much I love you."
(Honestly, out of a desire to not boast or be self-aggrandizing, we debated whether to include Yendry's last statements about Andrea, but decided not to edit her sentiments. We remember Paul's words in 2 Corinthians about not boasting about ourselves, but boasting about Christ. We know that what kids like Yendry see is Christ living in us, and HE is who they are falling in love with when He works through us and gives us the privilege of being His instruments.)
At times I struggle to adequately communicate and contextualize our lives here to the folks back "home." How to explain the joy of bringing a smile to a child in poverty, alongside the seething frustration of waiting in 4 lines at the post office for 2 hours to receive a simple care package? How to share kingdom advances next to the daily perils of driving in absolute chaos? How to adequately summarize a calling where we'd rather be no where else than a slum filled with violence and gangbangers eyeing you every time you pass by, wondering if this might be the time they choose to take issue with your presence?
Sometimes I wonder how I can complain about a country with nearly perfect weather year round, and some of the world's most beautiful beaches within a few hours of driving. Other times, I wonder if I can spend one more second in a country where I am ripped off at every turn because of the color of my skin. Seriously, we can't make this stuff up. If you think I'm exaggerating, even the socialized GOVERNMENT sets health care prices that are double for foreigners what they are for Costa Ricans. How to explain to THEM that there are some gringos who AREN'T rich, and that missionaries are some of them?
Then there are relationships: we love some Costa Ricans and fellow missionaries that we've met here, but we hate that some of our best friends and families are so far away. We love getting to know new missionaries passing through, but we hate seeing them go. We still love homeschooling the kids, but we hate the social isolation that it causes here for the kids and our family. Are you getting the idea?
Most times we are reluctant to share the negative aspects of life on the mission field, because we don't want to complain or perpetuate some self-aggrandizing idea that we're martyrs, unless of course we can make it into a funny story afterward. But the bottom line is that sometimes it's hard. And more importantly, no matter how hard it feels, we're always 110% sure that we're where God wants us, which is what gets us through the discouragements and frustrations of day-to-day life in Central America.
Seeing Jessica come to Christ, baptizing Walter at a leader's retreat a couple weeks ago, providing a place for Michelle to live after her mom decided to sell her into the sex trade, being available to counsel a family in crisis, THAT is why we are here. In one short week, we'll be taking 120 kids to camp and bombarding them with love and messages from Jesus for three straight days. Satan wants to distract us with a million tiny irritations, alongside a generous dose of relational dysfunction. But God wants to show us that our comfort is not what's important in this life, and that His kingdom purpose is worth any risk or sacrifice. Who will we listen to?
The quote of this month about being content with what happens has challenged me greatly to trust that whatever happens is from the hand of the Lord. If I really believe that, shouldn't I be willing to let go of my own plans and whatever kind of life that I think is fair for me to lead here, and trust that it is better than what I would choose? So I will challenge myself to allow God to do the hard work of forming me more and more into the likeness of Christ, be it through temporary sufferings or immeasurable and eternal joys.
Happy New Year, friends, Andrea